The Sacred Writings of Zoroastrianism

For Zoroastrians the most treasured part of their holy writings, known collectively as the Avesta, are seventeen great poems or hymns, the Gathas, composed by their prophet himself. Zarathushtra lived, it seems, between 1400 and 1200 B.C.E. when stone age was yielding to bronze age for the Iranian tribes, who then as pastoralists inhabited the South Russian steppes. It was for them an epoch of turmoil and unrest, when, as Zarathushtra’s hymns show, his own people suffered much from roving war-bands, who raided and slaughtered their more peaceable neighbours; and the sorrow and bloodshed which he himself saw led him to meditate deeply on good and evil, and the purpose of this troubled life. Himself a priest, he was also a seer and a profoundly original thinker; and he finally offered his people, as revealed truth, a great vision of unity and moral purpose in the cosmos. There was, he taught, one eternal God, Ahura Mazda, the ‘Lord of Wisdom’, omniscient, just and wholly good. To him is opposed an adversary, the Hostile or Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu, who likewise is uncreated, but who in the end will perish. He is in all ways contrary to God, being ignorant, malevolent and full of hate; and God’s purpose in creating this world was to make a battleground where their two powers could encounter, and evil be defeated, and so removed from the universe. This prophetic vision Zarathushtra evidently expounded in plain words to ‘those who came from far and those from near’; and it is the main theme also of his great hymns. These are composed in a richly intricate poetic tradition, old already in his own day; and they would be difficult for us to understand in detail without the help of the later Zoroastrian writings, for their meaning is densely packed into subtle, allusive words. In them Zarathushtra addresses Ahura Mazda trustfully as his friend and teacher, but also venerates him profoundly as the exalted ‘Creator of all things through the Holy Spirit’, the One who ‘in the beginning, at creation, established the course of sun and stars’, and who still ‘upholds the earth from below, and the heavens from falling’. All that He made was good; but everything was maliciously attacked and tainted, as He had foreseen would happen, by the Evil Spirit. It is the Evil Spirit who has thus brought wickedness and corruption, disease and death, into this once perfect world; and the whole striving of Ahura Mazda’s creation, instinctive in nature but conscious in man, should be to overcome this alien evil, whether moral, spiritual or physical, and so bring about the destruction of Angra Mainyu and restore the world once more to its original perfect state.

Meanwhile evil abounds, and for every creature there is death. When a man or woman dies, Zarathushtra taught, the soul is judged. Its thoughts, words and acts during this life are exactly weighed. If the good outweigh the bad, it ascends to the ‘Best Existence’, that is, heaven; if the bad weigh more heavily, it goes down into the ‘Worst Existence’, hell, a place of torment hollowed out by Angra Mainyu in the depths of the earth; and if good and bad weigh the same, it is sent to a place where it feels neither pain nor joy, but simply exists until the Last Day. Thus justice, which is not to be found in this now corrupted world, will be met with hereafter, when those who have lived good lives, and have been just, truthful, generous and kind, will have their reward. Finally the forces of good will triumph also in this world. Then the souls of the dead will be united again with their resurrected bodies. The Last Judgement will take place, when ‘each will behold his own good or bad deeds, and the just will stand out like white sheep among the black’. A torrent of molten metal will cover the earth and flow down into hell, purifying all things. Mankind will have to pass through this torrent in the resurrected flesh; and to the good it will be as harmless as warm milk, but the wicked will perish, together with the Evil Spirit, their master. Nature will revive, and the kingdom of God will come on a transfigured earth, flourishing like a garden (‘Persian paradise’) in spring; and the blessed will rejoice in God’s presence for ever.

Zarathushtra alludes again and again in his Gathas to these ‘last things’; and he also speaks of one who will come after him as a Saviour (Saoshyant), who will lead mankind to fulfil its part in bringing them about. His followers treasured both his teachings and his words. The Gathas were made part of the liturgy of the daily service, the ‘yasna’; and so they have been recited each day from beginning to end by Zoroastrian priests since the time of the prophet. Further, every Zoroastrian has a duty to pray five times a day, standing, in the presence of fire, which their prophet saw as the symbol of justice and order (for ‘fire’ includes the sun, nature’s great regulator); and verses from the Gathas form part of the prescribed daily prayers. Zoroastrians also use constantly a short prayer which Zarathushtra taught his disciples, the ‘Ahunvar’, which is as sacred to them as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is to Christians.

In time Zarathushtra’s followers elaborated his teachings concerning the Saoshyant, and their expectations of his advent came to be embodied in a fine apocalyptic literature, also in verse, of which only scattered fragments survive. This literature was especially cultivated, in various Iranian languages, after Alexander conquered the Persian Empire in the fourth century B.C.E. and subjected Zoroastrians for the first time to alien and infidel rule. One offshoot of it was the poetry of the Persian Sibyllists, who like all Sibyllists wrote in Greek hexameters, and so helped to make Zoroastrian beliefs widely known in the Greco-Roman world. They evidently wrote much about the end of time to be heralded by the coming of the Saoshyant, who, according to developed belief, was to be born of Zarathushtra’s own seed, miraculously preserved in the depths of a lake. A virgin will bathe in this lake and become with child; and this child will be the Saoshyant, a world saviour who, with divine help, will lead the forces of good to triumph in the last great battle against evil. This expectation, fully developed evidently by at least 600 B.C.E., continued to sustain the Zoroastrian community, especially in times of trouble and oppression.

Meantime each individual had to expect personal judgment at death; and many of the later texts tell of the weighing in the scales of justice at the ‘Chinvat Bridge’. This bridge, repeatedly referred to in the Gathias, was held traditionally to span the space between earth and heaven. After the weighing it became broad and safe for the just, but for the wicked it contracted to the narrowness of a blade’s edge, so that they fell from it, down into hell. Some manuscripts of a much read work, the ‘Book of the Just Viraz’, have illustrations vividly depicting this fall, and the terrors of hell itself. The book tells how Viraz, chosen by lot as the most upright member of his community, is put into a seven-days’ trance, during which his spirit visits the other world to establish the truths about heaven and hell. Being just, he is allowed to visit both, and speaks glowingly of the joys of heaven, and even more dramatically of the horrors of hell, ‘where close and many in number are the souls of the dead . . . Yet they see not and hear no sound from one another. Each one thinks: ‘I am alone.’ And they suffer gloom and darkness and stench and fearfulness and torment . . ., so that he who has been but one day in hell cries out: ‘Are not those nine thousand years yet fulfilled, that they do not release us from this hell?’ The story of Viraz’s vision is old (his name appears in one of the most ancient parts of the Avesta); but it was told and retold, and has been shown to be the ultimate source of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.

When Zarathushtra lived, his people had no knowledge of writing; and this alien art was long held to be unfit for holy texts. The Avesta was therefore handed down by word of mouth for countless generations, as were its translations into various later Iranian tongues. Eventually the whole Avesta, in twenty-one books, was set down in an alphabet especially evolved for this purpose, in the fifth or sixth century C.E. This huge work contained what was held to be ‘all knowledge’, all of which, it was believed, derived from Ahura Mazda’s revelation to Zarathushtra. It included liturgical and devotional works, the life and legend of the prophet, expositions of doctrine, apocalyptic writings, and books of law, cosmogony and scholastic science. Copies were made and placed evidently in the chief temples; but all were eventually destroyed through successive conquests of Iran by Muslim Arabs, Turks and Mongols. About a quarter of this ‘Great Avesta’ survived, however, those texts, that is, which were in constant devotional use and so were known by heart by all working priests, and were set down also in separate manuscripts for their use. Many of the lost Avestan texts are known, moreover, through Middle Persian translations; but these, made by scholar-priests, usually intersperse the translation with glosses and commentaries (sometimes extensive), as well as often copious citations from other parallel works; so that laborious study is needed to identify the actual translation and so recover the lost texts themselves, much of whose poetry and power has inevitably been diluted by this bookish rehandling. The Gathas, of course, survive intact; and the inspired teaching which they enshrine can still be seen exerting its spiritual and moral force even in the most crabbed and pedestrian of these later scholastic works, so devoutly and patiently compiled ‘for the sake of the path of the religion of Ahura Mazda and Zarathushtra’.

The nature of the Gathas themselves and their linguistic isolation means, however, that there is no accepted standard translation in any language of these venerable hymns, which for the Zoroastrian priests remain manthras, sacred words of profound power.

Suggested Further Reading

M. Boyce (ed.), Textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism. Textual sources for the study of religion, general ed. J.R. Hinnells, Manchester University Press, 1984, with bibliography).

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